Tuesday, January 25, 2011


While I procrastinate some more and avoid translating next week's text for my Russian translation class (I'll do that tomorrow anyway) and also avoid lying down on the couch to continue reading Amy Chua's World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (not because it isn't interesting, it's very interesting, but I am afraid of falling asleep at this time of the day) I thought I'd write a little bit more about studying languages at university.

Visit any language forum and people will be telling you that there's no point in wasting your time at university; you can learn a language much faster by yourself. And I completely agree. For those lucky few who have some self-discipline and some motivation, languages are best learned outside the dusty walls of academia. For those lacking self-discipline, a university may be helpful, but if you also lack motivation, I think we can safely say that you will never be fluent anyway. This is not always the issue though. If you somehow want to use your language professionally, you are most likely going to need a degree of some sort in order to "prove" that you actually know the language in question. This makes things even more funny since anyone who has studied a language at university should know that, for example, a bachelor's degree in Russian doesn't mean crap. Especially if you study at the University of Oslo. I can very safely say that no one without prior knowledge of Russian can show up at the university one day and graduate three years later with 80 Norwegian credits in Russian - and claim to be fluent. Certainly they will have knowledge of Russian, but at the present time I even doubt you could say those people would be able to read a book in Russian. Now, here it is very important to note that you don't spend all those three years studying Russian. Actual Russian studies only make up half that time. And who, besides some remarkable exceptions, ever learned Russian to fluency in 1 1/2 year?

Now, we don't have to demand fluency from these kind of studies. Perhaps we can hope that something resembling fluency will show up after a Masters degree, but after a Bachelor's degree you would think students would be able to at least feel a bit comfortable using the language. Right? There's no point in comparing these kind of language studies with those that are preceded by high school language classes (usually French, Spanish, Italian, German), since a person with the same amount of credits in any of those languages should actually be able to call himself or herself rather fluent. But those are easy languages, and students usually have more experience with them, no matter how useless high school language learning is. The question is then - how do you get comfortable with a language you never use?

In between beers the other night at a student pub, a fellow student of Russian said that the grammar class we are now taking is actually mostly a class that enables us to study more. More than anything else, it's a preparation for Master studies. Is that what language studies at university should be all about? Study in order to study more? Personally, I'm not against it since my interest in Russian is rather academic and I am going to pursue my studies at higher and higher levels, but I don't think the solution is optimal for the majority of students. Several students in our group (the same group that went to St. Petersburg, so we all know each other) have pointed out that the Russian classes this semester are more or less suited for me and another student in the group, who is very interested in grammar. That's 2 out of 15. The students who want to learn to speak Russian are not thrilled (one friend simply changed major to area studies instead). Certainly, all sorts of grammar study is somehow useful, and this semester we are going to write academic papers on smaller grammatical features of the Russian language. I get the feeling we mostly do this in order to learn to write about grammar; how to use the correct methodology and the correct tools. For academics it's brilliant, but how practical is it? When you go to a university to study a language, you do expect to learn that language. The "dry" grammar nerdery is balanced with a heavy dose of translation exercises, and that, combined with the fact that our translation teacher is actually Russian and speaks Russian to us helps a lot - especially since we have no oral part. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the other Russian class of the semester is a class on Slavic language history. Perhaps I should repeat, just for emphasis, that the University of Oslo offers no actual Russian speaking classes. Ever. (I think). You get one in St Petersburg, but that's it, 3 months.

Let's compare the 2nd semester Russian classes of some universities (without preparation classes, so 3rd semester at Uni of Oslo). One semester is 30p.
Uni. of Oslo (St Petersburg semester) - Theoretical Russian grammar - 10p, Russian translation & Spoken Russian - 10p, Practical Russian Grammar - 10p (or Russian politics 10p)
Uni. of Oslo (in Oslo) - Russian grammar II - 10p, Russian translation and language use - 10p
Uni. of Umeå - Russian grammar 8p, Russian text 8p, Oral and written Russian 6p, Russian literature 6p, Russian society 4p
Uni. of Stockholm - Syntax and written Russian (incl. translation) 6p, Oral Russian 3p, Russian history of literature and literature 3p (this includes reading 5 books in Swedish and extracts in Russian), "Lecture" - on research and debate on the subject (doesn't count in points), Fiction and Non-Fiction and individual task, including translation and oral presentation 8p

Somehow I feel that Oslo's version is not really optimal (Stockholm's and Umeå's kind of make me want to change country again though). Shouldn't there be some sort of option for those who want to develop more practical skills, versus those who plan on staying at university and who need to be more... academically competent? You can speak perfectly fine Russian without being able to write dissertations on aspect and without being able to write three pages on the formation of the imperative. Conversely, you can be able to write those fancy papers without actually being able to hold a normal conversation in Russian. The idea is most likely that you are supposed to acquire those practical skills after you have perfected the theoretical part, but that forces people to stay ages at university. You could perhaps think that the solution is to go to Russia. But nah. You only get to go to Russia at the Master's level if you study Russian area studies, not if you study language. And you have to pay some serious tuition fees.

Well, that being said, I am applying for the Masters program in the fall, and I think this spring's classes will be the most interesting ever, but then I am not really the average Russian student either. Now I have some books to read, some (absolutely perfect) biscotti to put in jars and an apartment to clean, before I go to this semester's first class on Russian literature.


  1. "While I procrastinate..."

    Nothing wrong with that. Procrastination is an art form, though.

    "Visit any language forum and people will be telling you that there's no point in wasting your time..."

    Yes, they'll tell you that and more. And you'll learn a lot, but mostly about your own time management.

    "Certainly, all sorts of grammar study is somehow useful"

    Could you please explain :) If I remember well, the forum people will also tell you there is no point in studying any grammar, either :0)

  2. Well I never said I agree with all "they" say ;) And lots of people advocate grammar study.

  3. You made a very good point!

    I was good at foreign languages when I was at school and figured it would be great to become a translator. I went to university and studied English and German, then Translation studies. After a while I realized that:
    1- I was much more interested in the use of the language as a communication tool and had the feeling I wasn´t learning anything at university
    2- Translation is all about your mother tongue.

    Guess what? I gradually lost interest...And when I tell people that I learnt how to speak by living in the country and watching dvds, they seem not to understand.

  4. If there is something university won't teach you, it's how to communicate in a foreign language :-) A friend of mine did say something about the Japanese program at our university, about how they go through themes (where they are given a certain vocabulary to learn) and how their learning is situation based. I got the impression they actually practice the language in class. Even though this may be stressful, it is actually how you learn :-) So... whereas they actually learn how to handle certain situations, we learn how to explain grammar. Yeah, that comes in handy in Russia!